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The Big Preview: Virginia vs. UNC-Wilmington

Virginia’s NCAA tournament action kicks off Thursday against the Seahawks. What should we expect?

NCAA Basketball: CAA Conference Tournament Finals- Hofstra vs North Carolina-Wilmington
Cacok shoots an unnervingly high field goal percentage.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In Tony Bennett’s first season at Virginia, the Hoos randomly faced UNC-Wilmington in the middle of the ACC season. The Hoos came out on top 69-67, in a 66 possession game. That Virginia team was not very good, finishing 15-16 and not making the post-season, but that UNC-W team was very bad, finishing 9-22 and ranked #214 by KenPom (the Hoos ranked 76th).

Much has changed since then. Virginia has become one of the nation’s elite teams, making the NCAA tourney four years in a row and remaining in the Top 25 for the entirety of this season, despite some struggles. Meanwhile, UNC-W is in the NCAAs for the second consecutive season. Last year, they played Duke in the first round and actually held a four point lead at halftime. They ended up falling by eight, but that performance has led to them being a trendy upset pick this year. Duke crushed the Seahawks on the interior, shooting over 64% from the paint and shooting 43 FTs, making up for their poor three-point shooting. UNC-W, on the other hand, stayed in it almost exclusively because they shot 42% from three, while also grabbing 31% of their offensive boards (Duke actually grabbed 36% of their own offensive boards).

This year, UNC-W played just three games against NCAA tournament teams. They lost to Middle Tennessee in the Music City Challenge, lost at Clemson, and beat ETSU at home. That ETSU game was their best win (one of just three top-100 wins they had). Their worst loss was to #136 Elon on the road (all rankings from

There are some differences between this year’s Seahawks team and last year’s. Last year, the team had 7-footer CJ Gettys in the middle and surrounded him with four guards. He has since transferred to Rutgers. Then-freshman big man Devontae Cacok averaged just nine minutes per game (he fouled out of the Duke game in just seven minutes). This year, Cacok and averages 25 minutes per game along with 12 points and nearly 10 rebounds while leading the nation in FG%. He’s not particularly big (6’7” 240), but he’s a quick leaper and he’s a very good finisher. He gets his points off transition dunks and off rebounds. He’s not going to create a shot in the post, he’s not going to shoot from more than a few feet away, and he still has a tendency to commit too many fouls. He fouled out eight times this year, and his minutes are often reduced because of foul trouble. If the Hoos are able to get some penetration, Cacok will overcommit. He also gets overaggressive on the offensive boards at times and will commit loose ball fouls. Don’t be too surprised if Jarred Reuter gets some early playing time. He lacks the athleticism to get out in transition but he is probably the strongest player on the team, and is very good at getting position on the glass. That could frustrate Cacok, which may lead to an over-the-back or two.

Cacok is actually just the fourth leading scorer for the Seahawks. They are led by another sophomore, C.J. Bryce, who shoots about four treys per game at just 34% shooting. He is, however, the top playmaker on the team, and he excels at the so-called “secondary break” in which he trails the ball and takes a pass on the perimeter and then gets into the paint before the defense is able to get completely set. That isn’t something that generally works against the Hoos, who are very quick to get back on defense and get set.

The Seahawks like to press. They will run different presses, both man-to-man and zone. Despite this, they actually force less turnovers than the Hoos do (by percentage of course, as the Hoos play a much slower pace). That pace is actually likely to be the key for this game. The Seahawks get a lot of their points in transition. If they are able to speed up the game and get their transition points, the Hoos could struggle. But if the Hoos are able to slow the game into a half-court game, they’ll have the edge because of their defense.

UNC-W shoots a ton of threes with almost 42% of their shots being threes (48th in the nation), but they shoot it at just 36% (129th). They shot 26 threes in the Duke game last year, and have actually been shooting the three more this year. In their three games against NCAAT teams, they shot 19 (ETSU), 31 (Clemson) and 36 (MTSU). Let’s take a look at that in percentage of shots, since they play at such a fast pace.

Game 3PTA % 3PT Shooting %
Game 3PTA % 3PT Shooting %
ETSU 34% 21%
MTSU 58% 28%
Clemson 44% 26%
Season 42% 36%
UNC-W three point shooting percentages against NCAA tournament teams.

This is a team that finished ninth in the country in two-point FG%. So much of that is because of their transition points. In the half court, they rely very heavily on three-point shooting. Wahoo fans know that can be a good thing or a bad thing. If the threes are dropping, the Seahawks are tough to beat. If the threes aren’t dropping, they are going to have trouble scoring points. Against better defenses, the Seahawks have had trouble getting open looks and therefore their shooting percentages have been poor. They played two top-50 defense (per and in those two games they scored 1.0 and 0.87 ppp, compared to 1.17 overall. They also scored 0.86 and 0.96 ppp in two games against College of Charleston (65th defense), a team that plays a similar slow pace to the Hoos.

The top shooters for the Seahawks are seniors Denzel Ingram and Ambrose Mosley. Ingram is eighth in the nation in three point attempts. He shoots almost 10 per game from out there, making 36%. Ingram is quick off the bounce, especially in transition. He’ll push after every defensive rebound, after made baskets as well as off turnovers. He shoots 47% from two, which isn’t bad for a 6’, 175 guard, but again, most of those buckets come in transition. He is capable of getting to the rack, but he struggles to finish among the trees. What he tries to do is dish to Cacok for dunks. Mosley is almost exclusively a three point shooter. Seriously. He has taken 80% of his shots from downtown and shoots about 40%. He’ll let fly from well behind the NCAA 3 point line and he’s capable of knocking down the deep ones. He’ll likely be tailed by Kyle Guy for much of the game. That also likely means he’ll be guarding Guy, and he is not a good defender, so Guy could go off in this game. I’m sure he’d love to make up for his poor showing against Notre Dame.

The final piece of the Seahawk’s puzzle is another senior, Chris Flemmings. Flemmings also shoots about half of his shots from downtown, but shoots just 33%. He’s 6’5” 180, so he will be matched up with either Darius Thompson or Ty Jerome. Flemmings transferred from DII Barton College two years ago and walked on to the Seahawks team. He had a big game last year against Duke with 18 points and was complimented by Coach K after the game. Flemmings is also a pretty good defender, and really the only good perimeter defender on the team, though that may be as much about scheme as talent.

Mostly the Seahawks are trying to generate steals or force bad decisions by the offense. Once you break the press, they generally aren’t a good defensive team. They give up a lot of easy buckets in transition, something the Hoos may be able to use to get going offensively. The Hoos recently have struggled to score inside, so the easy buckets will be very important. Conversely, the Seahawks do not turn the ball over very much on offense, but that doesn’t bother the Hoos. Though the Hoos have been forcing their share of turnovers this year, it isn’t part of their usual game plan. They are perfectly content to let the offense hold the ball for 30 seconds before taking a tough shot. The Hoos style can frustrate up-tempo teams and force them into bad shots and bad decisions.

Virginia showed early this year that they are more than capable of getting out in transition and getting some easy buckets. Though the Seahawks are clearly more comfortable in a transition game, the Hoos actually have better (and more) athletes than the Seahawks. UNC-W is not a deep team, with 3 players averaging over 33 minutes per game, and just seven players averaging 10 minutes per game (the Hoos, in contrast, have nobody averaging over 32 minutes per game and have 10 players averaging over 10 minutes per game).

With the emergence of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, the Hoos will have plenty of ball-handlers on the floor at all times to help break the press. That may lead to the aforementioned easy buckets, but it will also serve to continue frustrating the Seahawks. Of course, if the Hoos defense is as good as it often is, there may not be many opportunities for the Seahawks to set up their press.

At this time of year, anything can happen. That is why they call it March Madness. Due to the Hoos style of play, they tend to play more close games than blowouts. A five point game can quickly swing the other direction in just a couple of possessions, and a hot shooting team can score against even the best defense. But, the Hoos are a disciplined team that tend to play well against less talented teams and the Seahawks are not a good half-court team on either end of the court. Because of that, their matchup with the Hoos looks like a poor one. The Hoos should be able to handle this one with relative ease.